Last weekend saw the publication of one of the worst story leads in the history of newspaper journalism. In a column for the Toronto Star, writing about the trial in a horrific case in which a woman was sexually assaulted by her own doctor during a hysterectomy, columnist Rosie DiManno began with this charming description:
She lost a womb but gained a penis.
The former was being removed surgically—full hysterectomy—while the latter was forcibly shoved into her slack mouth.
Yikes. I’m sure there’s some story to be told about how that hideous combination of words, jarringly inappropriate in tone in relation to subject matter, came to be published, and how no editor at any stage of the process ever stepped in and said “uh, not such a good idea.”
But what I’m especially interested in is what happened afterwards. The story quickly went viral on Twitter and blogs, with dozens of people in my timelines shaking their heads over how anyone could have possibly thought that atrocious sentence was the best way to tell this particular story.
Moments like this have been one of the joys of the rise of social media and quick-sharing—when abominably bad writing goes viral.
Now, I’m not talking about columns that are poorly reasoned, or merely expressing an opinion with which I disagree. And I also don’t mean trolling, of the Rush Limbaugh/Skip Bayless variety, when commentators say outrageously awful things that they probably don’t really believe just to get a reaction, and have built decades-long careers based on doing so repeatedly.
I’m talking about arguments that are both completely sincere, yet so tasteless, tone-deaf and ill-conceived that they go all the way around the bend to the realm of the unintentionally hilarious. It’s the journalistic equivalent of The Room or Troll 2—movies so bad they’re highly enjoyable.
This has happened a lot lately, with other noted recent examples being a Temple student’s column about his girlfriend’s period, Stephen Marche’s drooling profile of Megan Fox in Esquire, the Daily News‘ Marcus Hayes and his laughably mean-spirited takedown of “breathy” ex-Eagle Asante Samuel, and pretty much everything the New York Post‘s Andrea Peyser has published in the last 15 years.
In fact, viral bad writing has become such a big thing online that The Atlantic was able to compile a list of the 50 Worst Columns of 2012, and I instantly recalled reading almost everything on the list. The Atlantic‘s top 50 didn’t even include my personal choice for #1: Anna Breslow’s vile missive in Tablet about how Breaking Bad reminded her why she doesn’t trust Holocaust survivors.
The other great thing about such articles is the way some of the best writers on the Internet take them apart; it’s often a thing of beauty.
In the bad sportswriting realm, this is the kind of thing that the now-defunct blog Fire Joe Morgan used to delightfully mock regularly. Now, there’s SBNation.com’s Andrew Sharp and his brilliant feature “Troll Tuesday,” in which he constructs note-perfect parodies of spectacularly wrongheaded newspaper sports columns. The one in which Vince Lombardi looks down from heaven to shake his head at Jay Cutler’s lack of toughness is my personal favorite, because I could very much see Bill Plaschke or Jay Mariotti writing the exact same column in complete seriousness.
The piece that kicked this all off was “You Left the Yard.” In September 2009, Orange County Register sports columnist Mark Whicker wrote a column in which he went through all of the crazy things that had happened in sports over the previous 18 years. It’s kind of an old sportswriting trope: the writer pretending to explain, say, everything weird that happened in the most reason Phillies season to a guy who’s been in a coma since last April and just woke up.
Except Whicker’s peg was something different: the unspeakably horrifying story of Jaycee Dugard, the woman who was abducted at the age of 11, raped repeatedly, impregnated, and kept in an enclosed space in the abductor’s backyard, before finally escaping 18 years later. Whicker’s proverbial guy-in-a-coma was Dugard, his lighthearted romp through sports history was directed toward her, and he finished the column with the immortal phrase “you left the yard.”
Everyone who’s a professional writer has written things that they’d like to have back. But in the pre-Internet, pre-Twitter days, someone could write a horrible column and have only a few people notice it and, worst case, they’d draw a couple of strongly worded letters to the editor. Now? Write something egregiously bad, and it might stay with you forever.
The other downside, of course, is that any so-bad-it’s-viral article results in a windfall of web traffic back to the original piece. Maybe the key to the Inquirer‘s long-term survival is to immediately hire Rosie DiManno, Mark Whicker and Andrea Peyser.